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The Ultimate Guide to Buying Towels

The Ultimate Guide to Buying Towels

The perfect towel is just the right mix of functional, fashionable and indulgent, but with so many different materials, weights, sizes, colors and textures to choose from, finding the go-to towel for your household may be overwhelming. Don’t throw in the towel (so to speak) — our guide to buying towels will tell you everything you need to know to make an informed decision so you can wrap yourself and your family in comfort after every shower and bath.

What Are the Most Common Towel Sizes?

If you’ve done any browsing in the “bed and bath” section, you may have noticed that towels come in a variety of sizes. Each towel size serves a different purpose in your home and daily rituals. Some manufacturers vary sizes, so be sure to check measurements before purchasing if there’s a specific size you’re looking for.

The most common towels come in the following ranges of dimensions:

  • Wash cloth or face towel – 12″ x 12″ or 13” x 13”
  • Hand towels – 16-17” x 30” or 20” x 30”
  • Bath towels – 27” x 52” or 28” x 54”
  • Bath sheets – 40″ x 72″
  • Beach towels – 30” x 60” or 35” x 70”
Martha Stewart White Noah Six Piece Towel Set in Basket

Wash cloths and face towels

Measurements: 12” x 12” or 13” x 13”
Wash cloths are the smallest bath towel option, and they are commonly used to wash and dry your face outside of the shower. They also work well to cleanse and exfoliate your body while you shower or bathe.

Hand towels

Measurements: 16-17” x 30” or 20” x 30”
As you can probably deduce from their name, hand towels are intended for drying your hands after washing at the sink (which we’ve all been doing extra faithfully these days!). These towels remain outside of the shower, and while they can be used to dry your face as well, it’s best to use a designated face towel to ensure no makeup ends up on the hand towels and sensitive complexions are pampered.

Bath towels

Measurements: 27” x 52” or 28” x 54”
Bath towels are the most common towels for drying off after taking a bath or shower. Soft and absorbent, they are ideal for drying both your body and hair, and their dimensions mean they provide adequate coverage without being overly heavy.

Bath sheets

Measurements: 40” x 72”
Bath sheets are the largest and most luxurious towel choice available, although it’s important to note that sizes can vary quite a bit from one brand to the next. Some manufacturers even offer two different sizes: the “standard” and the slightly smaller “Euro” bath sheet. Selecting whether to use one and in which size really comes down to personal preference. Some people find bath sheets too bulky compared to bath towels, while others, while others regard them as the very definition of at-home luxury.

Regardless of their dimensions, bath sheets are optimal for drying off and wrapping up in after bathing. They work particularly well if you seek extra cozy coverage. For reference, many standard bath sheet styles are 67% bigger than bath towels. It’s important to keep in mind that bath sheets do occupy more space when laundering; just a couple of them can easily fill up a washing machine.

Beach towels

Measurements: 30” x 60” or 35” x 70”
Beach towels are designed to offer comfort at the pool or the beach and dry you off after a swim, while also serving as a protective barrier between the user and the sand. A beach towel goes through a lot of wear and tear; it will most likely be stepped on, exposed to the sun, and will function as a makeshift cover-up or even a blanket. It will also be exposed to salt water, chlorine, and will dry over and over again without being thoroughly rinsed. So, although most people like their beach towels plush and absorbent, they won’t be as thick as luxury bath towels, and they need to be super strong.

Martha Stewart Towel Set

What Materials and Fabrics Are Towels Made From?

We can’t talk about selecting towels without discussing what they’re made from. In most cases, the primary material used is cotton fibers, but the look and feel depends largely on what specific type of cotton is used. Towels designed and marketed for daily use are made of standard cotton, but there are also towels made of blends an eco-conscious fiber blends like Modal and Rayon from bamboo. 

Egyptian Giza Cotton

Egyptian cotton is considered the “crème de la crème” of towel fabrics. These pricier towels have longer, more fibrous threads, which means that each towel has more moisture-absorbing loops per inch. The ultra-soft, super-fluffy bath towels found in high-end spas and hotels are typically made of Egyptian cotton. A higher twist leads to a heavier, stronger towel, but it also means the towel will take longer to dry. Depending on the climate you live in and the ventilation situation in your bathroom, this can make Egyptian cotton a poor choice for bath towels, as the fabric holds onto moisture long after use, potentially leading to dampness-induced mildew and an unpleasant aroma. Do consider where you plan to use your towels prior to completing your purchase.

Pima or Supima® Cotton

Pima cotton (or the name brand Supima®) is the American-grown version of Egyptian cotton which offers a similarly luxurious look and feel. It offers high absorbency, fast-drying breathability, and durability over the course of many washes. Pima cotton is a great choice, while still remaining within an affordable price range. When shopping for towels, be sure to check the labels or look for the Supima® trademark, which guarantees the towel is made of 100% American pima cotton.

Turkish Cotton

Grown exclusively in Turkey, Turkish cotton is a premium long-fiber cotton that provides a high level of comfort, absorbency and durability. Much like Egyptian cotton, the long fibers yield stronger and smoother threads than regular cotton and become even softer and more comfortable over time. Turkish cotton provides a balance between absorbance and softness, resulting in a lightweight fabric with maximum absorbency, and efficient, quick-drying.

Microfiber and Microcotton

Towels made from this microfiber and microcotton are lighter and thinner than cotton towels and are known for drying extremely quickly. They are ideal towels for the gym or swimming pool, but are also suitable for home use and on-the-go activities.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton towels are typically made from 100% fair-trade certified organic cotton grown without the use of toxic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. This material has the strictest environmental standards. These soft towels generally range from light to medium weight and dry fairly quickly; although they’re considered mid-weight absorbent towels.

Eco-Conscious Towel Fabrics

More eco-friendly types of fabric are starting to find their way into today’s bath towels, including bamboo-derived, hemp and Modal (made of cellulose from beech trees). Modal is about 50% more absorbent than cotton alone, and it won’t fade over time, making it an excellent choice for bath towels. Eco-conscious buyers can look for organic towels made from bamboo-derived fibers, which have a looser, velvety-soft texture as compared to cotton towels. As an additional bonus, bamboo and the hemp towels have natural anti-bacterial, odor-resistant and mildew-resistant qualities.

Spirit Linen Home Nirvana Purple Towel Set
Spirit Linen Home Blue Towel Set

How to select the best towel weight for you

Look at the GSM

One way to judge the quality of a towel is to hold it: a high-quality towel feels much heavier than it looks and will be much more absorbent. But for shoppers browsing for products online, there is a reliable, standardized way to differentiate between different towel weights without touching them.

The density of a towel is measured by GSM (Grams per Square Meter) on a scale from 300 to 900. Low GSM (300-400) towels are light and thin, while high GSM (450-600) towels are thicker, heavier and more absorbent. Typically, the higher the GSM, the better performance from the towel, though higher GSM towels may take a little longer to dry.

Under 400 GSM

A towel that weighs less than 400 GSM is likely to be thin and best suited to a gym bag.

400-500 GSM

These towels are lightweight and allow for quicker drying time. If you are looking to purchase a hand towel or guest towel, it is advisable for the GSM to be at least 400. 

500-650 GSM

At an ideal medium weight, this soft and absorbent density is perfect for bath towels and guest towels.

750-900 GSM

Considered the premium luxury weight, these towels will be denser, thicker, and more absorbent. The plush softness combined with super absorbency makes them an appealing option for that at-home spa luxury experience.

How to Clean and Care for Your Towels

 

The best way to make sure your towels last is to take proper care of them. For starters, always follow the care instructions that are included and follow simple guidelines to maintain the integrity of your towel collection.

How to Soften Scratchy Towels

Over time, your soft bath towels may become abrasive and stiff after laundering. Many factors can cause this, but most often it is a result of hard water. The detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets you use can also play a role in causing your towels to lose their “like new” feeling as the soaps and other compounds build up between the cotton fibers. To soften hard wash water, pour one cup of washing soda, half a cup of borax and two quarts of water in a large container, stir the solution briskly until all of the dry ingredients are dissolved, then add one cup of the mixture to each load of laundry along with the normal amount of detergent.

How Often should you Launder Your Towels?

In terms of washing frequency, bath towels should be washed every three to four uses, while hand towels, which are used more often, should be washed every two to three days. Bathmats should be washed weekly or at least every two weeks.

 

 General Towel Care Tips

  • Always wash your towels before using them for the first time to help set their color, improve absorbency, and reduce lint.
  • Wash like colors together.
  • Avoid using fabric softeners and dryer sheets, as they can cause the deterioration of towel fibers and reduce their absorbency.
  • Give your towels a shake when you take them out of the washer to fluff the terry loops that aid absorbency.
  • Don’t iron terry towels; this will reduce absorbency.
  • Ensure that towels are thoroughly dry when you remove them from the dryer. Even minimally damp towels can quickly mildew.
  • However, avoid over-drying towels, as doing so destroy the integrity of the individual cotton fibers.
  • Avoid contact with strong skin-care products (or opt for white towels if your facial products contain chemicals like benzoyl peroxide or acids) to help minimize towel spotting and bleaching.

Towel Colors and Styles

Because towels offer a relatively easy and affordable way to enhance or change up the look of your bathroom, they’re a great way to have fun with design. They bring a functional pop of color to an area of the house that’s often overlooked, so why not play around with bright hues and distinct patterns? Most retailers offer towels of all dimensions in every color of the rainbow, and seasonal trends or holidays are the perfect occasion to bring out embroidered, personalized or patterned towels that function much like decorative accessories in a bath or powder room. Popular textured towel styles include dobby, which is a design containing simple geometric forms, and jacquard, which features a slightly raised pattern to create designs rather than printing them on the surface of the towel.

Select the Towel That Best Fits Your Needs

When choosing towels for your household, there’s no wrong answer; the most important requirement is that the color, style, material and weight all fit your lifestyle. For example, if you swim laps at your gym’s pool regularly, you might want a light-weight, quick-drying towel with a relatively low GSM made from microcotton. If you have kids who take frequent baths, look for colorful, soft and comfortable yet low-density towels that will dry quickly without getting smelly. And if you’re looking to create that at-home spa experience, you owe it to yourself to spring for luxury, high-GSM towels in a plush and decadent cotton.

When shopping online for towels, look for towel sets that will deliver the full range of wash cloths, hand towels, bath towels and bath sheets in one fell swoop. Armed with a little knowledge, your towels will look, last and perform better in their many roles.

About The Author

Julia Wohlers

Julia Wohlers is a writer and visual designer obsessed with culture, travel and fashion editorial. She created Brand of People Magazine as a space to inspire creatives, entrepreneurs and culture-makers. Originally from Washington, D.C., Julia grew up all over the world, but she particularly loves Milan, where her son was born, and the Balkans, where life is uniquely authentic. You can find her on Instagram at @juliawohlers_ or follow the magazine at @brandofpeoplemag.

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